A recent editorial (27 March) in this newspaper on the 1916 commemorations listed Clarke, Pearse and Connolly as being in the pantheon of our nations heroes, joining the likes of OConnell, Parnell, Davitt, Redmond and those this paper has long championed, Wolfe Tone and JB Armour. Many readers, I suspect, may have been baffled by the juxtaposition of the last two. Who was this JB Armour, ranked pari passu with the father of Irish republicanism?
Like Tone he was a Protestant. But he was not a man of 98; he never shouldered a pike or carried a musket. James Brown Armour was born in 1841 at Lisboy, near Ballymoney, Co Antrim. At the age of 28 he was appointed minister at Second Ballymoney Presbyterian Church, also known as Trinity and to this day referred to locally as Armours meeting house. He came to prominence as an enthusiastic supporter of what became known as the Route land war, an agricultural tenant rights campaign. Ballymoney, part of the north Antrim area known as the Route, was one of Irelands liberal strongholds in the 19th century.
Presbyterians and Catholic farmers were united in resentment against the insecure tenure of their land where rents could and were raised at the whim of local landlords. Armour defined the campaign as one to emancipate the farming class from a tyranny which broke many a heart and was little better than legalised slavery. The struggle was successful and helped to change the face of Irish agriculture. In 1881 the government took measures to fix the term of tenure, impose fair rents and allow for the gradual purchase of land from the landlords.
Armour was also an outspoken advocate for home rule. Originally he opposed the policy but later came to believe it would be the best solution for Ireland as a whole. He was convinced it would bring about reconciliation between Protestants and Catholics and would boost the Irish economy for the benefit of all. He was an admirer and acquaintance of Sir Roger Casement. Casement and his siblings were looked after by relatives in the area following the death of their widowed father and Casement himself was educated at the neighbouring Ballymena Academy.
Sir Edward Carson was rallying Ulster Unionists to oppose home rule and in September 1912 he encouraged half a million men and women to sign the Ulster Covenant pledging to defend our cherished equal citizenship in the United Kingdom and in using all means which may be found necessary to defeat the present conspiracy to set up a Home Rule Parliament in Ireland.
In response, Casement suggested to Armour and other like-minded people that they should organise a meeting in Ballymoney to demonstrate publicly that not all Protestants supported Carsons covenant. Casement chose Ballymoney because of its reputation for liberalism and for Armours popularity but in reality Ballymoney had become a staunchly unionist town. The meeting went ahead on October 24th, 1913, in Ballymoney town hall. It could not be described as a great success. About 400 people attended and they pledged lawful opposition to unionism and called on the government to bring all Irishmen together in one common field of national effort. The speeches were redolent of romantic idealism rather than political reality and did not set the Antrim hills ablaze as Casement had promised. In contrast a month later an anti-home rule meeting was held in the same hall and the crowds spilled over into the surrounding streets.
Armour became disillusioned with Casement when it was revealed he had tried to recruit Irish prisoners of war in Germany to fight against Britain. It is a tragedy, Armour wrote in July 1916. His actions for the last two years can only be explained on the ground of insanity.
Armours liberalism was much admired by Douglas Gageby, a former editor of this newspaper. He kept his memory alive and there were references to him not infrequently in his editorials.
Gageby regarded him as being in the spirit of the Ulster Presbyterians who led the 98 rebellion and of Wolfe Tone and Henry Joy McCracken. There was another connection between Armour and Wolfe Tone. Tone signed one of his early pamphlet on Catholic emancipation as A Northern Whig. Armours son, William, became editor of the Northern Whig , a Belfast morning newspaper, now sadly defunct.